There's no simple solution for protecting pitchers
Players weigh safety vs. comfort as MLB searches for effective answer
With one out in the top of the seventh inning Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park, Marlins hitter Miguel Olivo drilled a line drive right back up the middle. All that stood between him and a single was Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels. All that stood between the lanky left-hander and a serious injury was his glove, which he managed to get up just in time to catch the ball inches from his temple.
"It's a situation we all kind of fear," Hamels said after the game. "At some point when you make enough pitches, it's probably going to happen. I'm just glad I was able to get my glove in the way and catch it."
Three nights later, Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ wasn't so fortunate. Happ was drilled on the side of his head by a line drive off the bat of Rays hitter Desmond Jennings. With that, the debate about what can be done to protect pitchers began again, even though, fortunately, Happ is expected to make a full recovery.
There was a lot of talk last season about some sort of protective caps for pitchers after Oakland's Brandon McCarthy was knocked out of a game by a line drive in September and Detroit's Doug Fister was hit during the World Series. So far, though, solutions have been elusive.
"We are actively meeting with a number of companies that are attempting to develop a product, and have reviewed test results for several products," Major League Baseball said in a statement. "Although some of the products are promising, no company has yet developed a product that has satisfied the testing criteria."
One of the biggest hurdles that will have to be overcome is the skepticism of the pitchers themselves. And their objections seem to fall into two categories. First, that any sort of protection would be unwieldy and would negatively impact their performance. And second, that it's difficult to envision any sort of gear that would be totally effective.
"It's definitely something I would try, but if it didn't work or didn't feel right, I would go back to the normal thing," said Rays ace David Price.
Added Marlins No. 1 starter Ricky Nolasco: "I wouldn't wear it. It would have to be very subtle. Pitching with a hat on is very different than pitching with a helmet, or whatever the thing is. It's very unfortunate what happened [to Happ], but I wouldn't be for it."
Tigers reliever Darin Downs was almost killed when struck by a line drive while pitching at Double-A Montgomery in 2009, and isn't opposed to the idea in theory. But even he has some reservations.
"I'd totally wear one if something felt comfortable, if something didn't hamper me from doing my job on the field. That comes first and foremost," Downs said. "The percentage of guys that get hit during the season, per inning, per pitches, it's real low, but I'd be for wearing something.
"It wouldn't have helped in [the Happ] incident. Maybe it would have helped me, but nobody's going to wear one unless it feels comfortable and feels natural. It's kind of like the new [batting] helmets. They had to make them as light as they possibly could so guys would accept them. A company sent me two different hats this offseason. They didn't really fit right on my head. Every head's different, so you'd have to actually custom fit the piece and custom fit the actual crown of the hat, because with the insert, the crown of the hat would sit higher than normal. A lot of things come into it."
Royals right-hander Like Hochevar also has personal experience. In college, he was hit on the temple by a line drive. He told the Kansas City Star that he wore a protective skull cap during his eight-week recovery. But Hochevar abandoned it when he was cleared for game action.
"It came down over the sides of my temple, and I wore my hat over it," Hochevar said. "I could have pitched in it, but I don't know that there's anything that could fully protect you. You see hitters when a ball gets away from a pitcher. They're in a good, solid helmet and still sometimes the lights go out."
Even McCarthy is skeptical that a practical solution will be developed soon, although he holds out hope for the future.
"I know that baseball has worked on it, and they're trying to find people from outside of baseball who can solve the problem," McCarthy said. "Until someone makes something that works, it's going to be tough for anybody to wear it.
"Most everything that's come out, it wouldn't have protected me, wouldn't have protected [Happ] if he got hit directly on the ear. So you're at the point where you're looking at hitting helmets. You'd have to have something that protected the ear. At that point, how vulnerable is the face and beyond?
"It's kind of a slippery slope, where somebody will have to come up with something really good or really sound. [But] we've put things on the moon before, so I feel like we could create some sort of a device that sits on your head and protects you. … It's going to be a money-maker whatever it is. You can sell it to youth leagues and people will wear it all the way through. Usually good ideas go where the money is, so I think if enough companies get into that, or people in their basement who are good at creating, someone will do it. It's just a matter of when, not if."
Many say the risk is just part of the game.
"If it's functional and not too big a difference from what we wear now, I think it's worth giving it a shot," said Astros left-hander Wesley Wright. "But growing up, you know it's part of the possibility of being a pitcher, as well as a hitter. Things happen, and I try to put more emphasis on how I finish [my delivery] and try to put myself in a better fielding position. At the same time, when you're trying to throw hard to make the pitches nasty, you put yourself in a bad fielding position and make yourself more vulnerable."
Said Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux: "What happened to J.A. Happ, I fear that every night. Fortunately, it doesn't happen very often. Nobody wants to see it happen. But the head is such a big part of the delivery, if you start adding weight to it, you're asking for trouble. This is what we all signed up for."
Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia flatly stated that "pitchers aren't going to wear hard hats," and added: "It's just the element of life. You walk around on the sidewalk, a car may hop the sidewalk and hit you. But they don't have barriers on the sidewalks. I think it's part of the game. Hockey, the same thing -- those guys have visors, some guys wear them, some guys don't. Some guy gets hit in the face. Unfortunately, that's part of the game."
The news on Happ hit Cubs right-hander Carlos Villanueva particularly hard, as they were Blue Jays teammates last season. Still, Villanueva wonders what can be done.
"Hopefully, they'll come up with something that won't affect us pitching," Villanueva said. "It's still such a fast game. What happens if the ball comes directly at your face? You can't pitch with a mask on. It just comes down to luck of the draw."
Hitters first resisted batting helmets and, later, ear flaps. Base coaches were unhappy when protective headgear was mandated for them. It's likely that pitchers will someday have similar safeguards. It may just take awhile.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters Jason Beck, A.J. Casavell, Bill Chastain, Gregor Chisolm, Joe Frisaro, Steve Gilbert, Dick Kaegel, Brian McTaggert, Scott Merkin, Carrie Muskat and T.R. Sullivan contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.